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Net Fiction

Trends: When urban legends hit the Internet, look out world--the resulting 'Netmyths' may be impossible to debunk.

February 27, 1996|TRACY THOMPSON | THE WASHINGTON POST

Of course the Mr. Gorsky story is untrue. This is beside the point. At this moment, it is circling the globe with a speed that would have seemed magical back when our ancestors were swapping gossip around the village well.

The Mr. Gorsky story is a "Netmyth." That is, it's circulating on the Internet, and it's an urban legend--a terrifically entertaining story presented as fact even though it isn't. Netmyths are of great interest to sociologists and computer experts, who say they are creating new rules about distinguishing between truth and fiction.

But first, the Mr. Gorsky story--currently a hot item on computer screens at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. It goes like this:

When Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he made an enigmatic remark: "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky." The comment was captured on the radio communications between the spacecraft and Mission Control but was not heard by the public. At the time, NASA folks assumed Armstrong was referring to some rival Soviet cosmonaut, but there was no Gorsky in the Soviet space program. Armstrong refused to explain the remark, which over time attained cult status among space program cognoscenti.

In July, the story continues, Armstrong made a speech in Tampa Bay, where the perennial Mr. Gorsky question came up. This time, Armstrong said he could answer, since Mr. Gorsky was now dead.

As a kid, Armstrong said, he lived next door to the Gorskys. One day he and his brother were playing ball in the backyard when his brother hit a pop fly that landed in the Gorskys' backyard, right outside their bedroom window. As Armstrong leaned over to pick up the ball, he heard an irate Mrs. Gorsky yelling at her husband, "Oral sex? Oral sex you want? You'll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!"

Brian Welch, NASA's news chief, first heard the Mr. Gorsky story last fall. Since then, he says, he's gotten three or four calls on it, all of them from people who have seen the story on the Internet. Welch had a friend at Johnson Space Flight Center go through the old Apollo 11 transcripts, which--big surprise--contain no reference to a Mr. Gorsky, he says.

And yet, Welch says, "This is something I'm going to get asked about as long as I work for NASA." When it comes to urban myths on the Internet, he adds, "You wonder how well people are able to discern the real from the not real in that medium."

That is indeed the question. Netmyths differ from traditional urban myths in several important ways, say scientists and computer experts. Traditional urban myths get told and retold: The story about the microwaved poodle, for example, or the one about the American tourists in Mexico who buy a Chihuahua and find out it's a sewer rat, come in dozens of variations.

But Netmyths explode instantly around the globe, duplicated word-for-word with the click of a computer mouse.

Urban myths that get on the Internet benefit from a subtly enhanced credibility, says Robert Park, a University of Maryland physics professor and an authority on pseudo-science.

"Rightly or wrongly, people have always assumed that which is printed has more credibility than that which is not," he says. "With the Internet, there's an enormous amount of information that hasn't been filtered through anything. It didn't have to find a publisher; it didn't have to go through any peer review to become available to enormous numbers of people."

That creates a data flow that bypasses institutions that have traditionally vetted the news--such as newspapers or scientific publications like the New England Journal of Medicine. When it comes to evaluating information in this brave new world, it's every man for himself.

But the Internet is an adaptable medium. Already, there are several newsgroups devoted to debunking all kinds of urban legends. If you browse through alt.folklore.urban, you can learn that Jamie Lee Curtis is not a hermaphrodite and that Albert Einstein did not do poorly in school; also that some people do indeed sneeze when exposed to bright light, and that fluorescent lamps will light up when held near a high-voltage line.

*

Debunking Netmyths isn't always easy. Some come with an impressive, if Dave Barry-ish, aura of authenticity. For example, the Darwin Award story.

The Darwin Award, presented as a mordant take on real life, is supposedly given each year to the person who does the human gene pool a favor by eliminating himself in the dumbest possible way.

The 1994 award supposedly went to the person responsible for the pile of smoldering metal some Arizona Highway Patrol officers found embedded in the side of a cliff in the desert, at a point where the road curved. The smoldering metal turned out to be the remains of a car.

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